Eternal university and tomato sauce in Italy

Article published on Oct. 10, 2005
community published
Article published on Oct. 10, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Italian universities treat their students so well that it takes them much longer than necessary to complete their degrees. While elsewhere in Europe studies may take a while, in Italy they can last forever.

Leonardo, Rocco, Bruno and Pino are four students who have failed to take their degree within the prescribed timeframe. Their twenties are behind them, they share a flat in Florence and the ups and downs of turning thirty. One of them wants to drop out to become a stand-up comedian, another is a night-watchman, another left his wife not long after their wedding and the last is restless in his middle-class existence without any real prospects. These are the characters of I laureati, a film by Leonardo Pieraccioni, that depicts classic university life in Italy. And what about the more ‘serious things’ in life? The foursome ends up dropping, one by one, their studies, wife and dreams of one day having a successful professional career. Do these men have no qualities? Or are they just molly-coddled mummy’s boys?

Late twenties the norm

The average age to graduate in Italy is somewhere between 27 and 28 years old. However, this varies according to the chosen course – the oldest usually study architecture or sociology, which turns out graduates averaging 28.9 and 29.7 years of age respectively. It also depends on a set of socio-economic characteristics that vary up and down the country. But Italian students are more than capable of getting their degree after their thirtieth birthday - the average age of those graduating when over thirty is 33.4, according to figures released in 2001 by the Ministry of Education.

“Why should we hurry? University courses are well taught and it’s an experience for life. Everyone knows there isn’t much work out there. So it’s better to leave home at the latest possible time. And anyway, mum’s tomato sauce is great”, says Francesco, 27, studying Natural Sciences and who won’t go beyond the national average because he is graduating on October 21. Best say goodbye to that tomato sauce…

Is it cooler to graduate late?

“The future can wait: who gets married at twenty-five any more? Who gives you a stable and secure job straight after graduation? No one. So we live the best years of our lives at our own pace. We can travel and have time for what we like to do. After graduation, everything changes”, says Piermaria, with a sly smile playing about his lips. He is 31, and still far from graduating in Literature. Objective: the theatre.

69% of Italian students graduate outside the time prescribed by the university. What pushes all these students to postpone economic and emotional independence from their family? The reasons for this extended time at university vary depending on the region, especially with regard to economic prospects that they offer. In the south of Italy, students tend to stay longer at home because of the 20% unemployment rate for recent graduates. In the north, however, there are economic prospects that incite students to finish their academic courses more quickly. Nevertheless, they remain in the lecture theatres far longer than any of their European counterparts.

Only Germans study for longer

The only other Europeans to graduate as late are the Germans. On average, German students graduate at 28, partly because they only leave school at 19 and compulsory military service still exists, and also because of their ‘pick and mix’ system whereby students can mix and match seemingly unrelated subjects. Light years ahead of this Germano-Italian ‘axis of old students’, lies the British system, where students graduate from their Bachelor degrees at about 21-22 years of age. This is thanks to a clever three-year university system (which has inspired the European reform forecast in the Bologna Process) and a flourishing economy, which makes Tony Blair’s country an Eldorado increasingly envied overseas. Except, perhaps, by the French, who, thanks to a system that obliges students to complete their exams year by year (or else repeat the exams), finish their masters at about 22-23 years old.